Life? Check. Liberty? More or less. Pursuit of happiness? On it.
In 2020, as a global pandemic threatened lives, and lockdowns necessarily curtailed our liberty to roam, millions of people decided to tackle the Declaration of Independence’s trickiest inalienable right. Specifically, they pursued happiness via a 10-week online course that explains in scientific detail why our brains keep getting the causes of happiness wrong, and how we can go about fixing that.
The course in question is “The Science of Well-Being,” taught by Yale psychology professor Laurie Santos, available for free on Coursera. In March 2020, fewer than half a million people had enrolled. As of April 2021, the number was 3.43 million — making it Coursera’s second most popular class of all time. Still ahead, with 4 million enrollments, is a free Stanford course on machine learning, which has the advantage of being run by Coursera cofounder Andrew Ng. Santos and Ng are equally well-loved, with 97 percent of reviews for both classes rating them five stars out of five.
That’s great news for Coursera, which saw its revenue jump 59 percent in 2020 to $293 million, and filed for its IPO in March 2021. No doubt many of those 3 million new happiness pursuers came for Santos’ class and stuck around to sign up for something else — or spent the optional $50 it takes to get a certificate proving they completed it. (Which is odd, given that the course itself suggests you’d be much happier if you spent that money on other people, but we’ll get to that.)
It’s great news for you too, in theory. Not only can you glean a lot of useful life advice for free from Santos’ class — which was itself the most oversubscribed in Yale’s history — you can see what all the online buzz is about. (Thousands of new students have enthused about the course on social media, which again runs counter to the course’s point that social media doesn’t make us happy — though as Santos repeatedly notes, just knowing this stuff doesn’t help us put it into action).
But if you don’t have time for a 10-week course, don’t worry. I took it, and I’m here to summarize the experience and the most salient points. Starting with one that makes it much less daunting:
1. It’s not really 10 weeks.
The 10-week structure of the class is more of a suggestion than a requirement. I blasted through it in about two weeks, including all handouts, quizzes and much of the suggested reading (though to be fair, I’d already read a number of the books Santos recommends).
If all you’re doing is watching the videos, you could probably get through the crucial first six weeks in one dedicated weekend. (Especially if you increase the speed of the videos, podcast style; Coursera lets you watch them up to twice as fast as they were filmed.) How much information you’d retain if you did it that way is another question.
Weeks seven through 10 contain almost no content. They are for your “final rewirement challenge,” where you’re supposed to commit to one of the brain-rewiring tricks discussed in class and update the Coursera community on how it’s going. In my case, I found one “rewirement” mentioned in class to be head and shoulders above the rest, and committed to using it as often as possible going forward. We’ll get to that too.
2. It’s a bit disjointed (and not entirely COVID-compliant).
Once you’ve been through the class, you can see how it’s been laid out. There are five lectures filmed at Yale over five weeks. They have been broken up into chunks of no more than 20 minutes each, and further broken up by pop quizzes that appear on screen to make sure you’re paying attention.
I didn’t mind that so much; the quizzes and weekly tests were helpful in stopping me second-screening the course (that is, convincing myself that I could pay attention while also playing casual games of Threes on my phone). After all, as this course tells us, our minds tend to wander on average 46.9 percent of the time — even in moments when we’re supposed to be focused.
My problem was with the way other videos were awkwardly shoehorned in, such as Santos’ Facebook Live Q&A from 2020 on how to cope with anxiety in the midst of COVID-19. Which is still worth watching, but would perhaps be best left until the end.
What’s also a little irksome is that the rest of the course has not been retrofitted for COVID times. For example, one week’s assignment is to strike up a conversation with a stranger every day, while another wants you to write out and hand-deliver a “gratitude letter” to a specific living individual who has meant a lot to you. Might be worth mentioning these activities are a little difficult right now — especially if you’re trying to keep your living mentor alive and healthy!
3. Santos is delightful — in a class setting.
It’s easy to see, in these lectures, why the course is so popular. Santos is extremely affable and honest. She delivers a lot of complex information in a way that doesn’t leave you behind. Her vibe is somewhere between your favorite camp counsellor and your best therapist. The camera often cuts to her audience for this version of the class — a small, diverse selection of Yale students, rather than the lecture hall for the original class — and you can see her winning them over with every Yale-specific reference.
But this doesn’t freeze us out if we never went to fancy school; rather it serves to demystify the Ivy League experience, and makes us feel like one of them. The mismatched chairs, the fireplace, the Q&As, the frequent mentions of cookies after class: Even if you’re no happier after watching these lectures, you certainly feel cozier.
How Santos performs in other settings is another question. Put her in a room at Davos and she summarizes the entire class in five minutes — albeit in a much more businesslike fashion. Put her on a podcast, because of course a podcast came out of all this (The Happiness Lab), and the content isn’t quite as focused, her delivery into the void not quite as compelling when there are no students right there.
4. The first few weeks are kind of basic.
Perhaps you already know that more money doesn’t make us happier (or rather, its effects on happiness seem to level off after your salary gets above $75,000). Perhaps you already heard that people make themselves miserably envious by comparing their full lives to their friends’ curated lives on social media, or that you’re happier if you spend money on experiences rather than stuff.
You may even have read somewhere about the ultimate happiness buster, hedonic adaptation. This is the fact that over time, we get used to any new situation, whether it be a horrific accident, a lottery win, a new car, or finding true love. Give it a few months, and happiness returns to baseline.
And our brains are the absolute worst at predicting how such events are going to effect us in the long run, especially when the advertising industry exists to convince us that our instincts are correct. Santos frequently uses the meme with a cat admiring a pile of hot dogs to illustrate our brains’ lousy abilities to predict future happiness, and it’s never not hilarious.
If you’re familiar with the more popular parts of positive psychology — if, say, you’d already read Daniel Gilbert’s 2007 blockbuster bestseller Stumbling on Happiness — then a good chunk of “The Science of Well-Being” is going to feel like a refresher course. (Gilbert’s groundbreaking psychology experiments are frequently cited by Santos.) You may also not be surprised to find that four of the best ways to rewire your brain towards happiness are diet, meditation, sleep and exercise. (We’ve been trying to tell you about the value of mindfulness for some time.)
That said, this is all stuff we could stand to learn over and over. Santos stitches the various strands of research together nicely, and every piece of advice comes with specifics based on studies. Diet? Simply removing processed foods from your countertops, replacing them with healthy snacks, helped participants lose weight in one study. Meditation? Half an hour a day seems to be the sweet spot. Sleep? Aim to get at least seven hours a night. Exercise? You probably need less than you think to feel the benefits in your brain; try working up a sweat for half an hour three times a week.
5. How to savor.
Personally, my pen didn’t really start moving on my notepad until week four of the course. That’s when Santos starts to delve into strategies for savoring life, which is the main way we can counteract hedonic adaptation.
Savoring by expressing gratitude in a letter or diary really does work in a variety of settings — for example, expressing gratitude after working out can make us exercise an hour longer per week on average. But if like me you roll your eyes at the mere words “gratitude journal,” there are a bunch of other ways to savor that studies say are effective:
Spend just eight minutes a week replaying happy memories, remembering exactly how you felt in those moments. This simple act has been shown to have positive emotional effects even weeks later.
Write about how you might never have met your partner or your best friend, or how you nearly missed something else that really defines you. How might things be worse if you hadn’t gotten into that college, or found that job, or bought that house? Going all It’s a Wonderful Life on your own life should improve your mood and your positive impressions of loved ones.
Pretend this was your last day — not necessarily your last day of life, but your last day of school, your last day in this job, your last day with your partner. You’d probably get pretty wistful, right, even if leaving was the right thing to do? Think about what you would want to say, what wrongs still need to be put right.
Split up awesome things, combine things that suck. There’s a reason why people rate their enjoyment of TV shows higher if they’re split up by commercials, and it’s not about the quality of the ads. It’s that breaking up the good times helps us appreciate them more. (The same holds true if we combine the painful stuff, which is why you should do all your workout at once.)
Santos even suggests splitting your Amazon deliveries into multiple boxes so you get more of a thrill opening each one, although she acknowledges this isn’t the best environmental idea. I’d say the concept applies more to her personal bete noir, social media: You’re going to have more fun on Facebook if you can only dip in for 10 minutes at a time.
6. Happiness = awkward.
Introverts, prepare to full-body cringe. One psychological experiment mentioned repeatedly in the course made its participants go on public transit and strike up a conversation with a stranger.
Even in pre-COVID times, I would have seriously considered throwing myself under public transit before I’d do such a thing. But it turns out our brains are particularly terrible at predicting the effects of social interactions on our happiness. We’re happier when we make plans with other people, we’re more resilient and effective when we make pledges to or seek help from others, and yes, we’re generally happier if someone talks to us on our morning commute than if we spend it in silence.
If it sounds awkward, it’s probably effective.
It struck me that this was a general rule for much of the recommendations of the course: If it sounds awkward, it’s probably effective. That’s true of gratitude letters, it’s certainly true of the public transit experiment (conducted by Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago, whose interview is one of the standout moments of the course), and it’s true of giving money to others.
That’s seen in the work of another interviewee, Elizabeth Dunn, author of Happy Money (whose TED talk is above). Whether the amount is $5 or $500, we gain more long-term subjectively-rated happiness if we give cash to other people rather than spend it on ourselves. The more we can see the impact of that spending, the better we feel, which suggests that all nonprofits should go all-out writing thank-you letters to donors.
And that when buying your next drink at Starbucks, maybe throw in another five bucks for the order of the next person in the socially distant line. You may not believe it, but such a random act of minor charity should lift your mood more than the caffeine.
7. WOOP, there it is
For my money, Santos saved the best for last. That’s when she gets to WOOP, a system devised by New York University psychology professor (and actual German princess) Gabriele Oettingen, also interviewed by Santos.
WOOP is a five-minute mental restructuring that you can use to tackle any problem. It stands for Wish, Outcome, Obstacles, Plan. Wish: You decide exactly what it is you want, the more precise the better. Outcome: Take a moment to bask in the mental glory of what exactly it will look like if your wish comes true. Obstacles: After the positive visualization, use your powers of negativity to determine exactly how you might screw yourself up on this one. Plan: Finally, you literally program your brain with an “if-then” vow. If this obstacle gets in your way, then how will you avoid or hurdle it?
Sounds pretty basic, but Oettingen has spent a whole career on studies that show WOOP can be effective in almost any circumstance you can imagine. (There are independent studies that call it Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intentions, or MCII; the process and positive outcome is the same). WOOP adherents find it particularly useful for tasks you’ve been avoiding for so long that you’re having anxiety and don’t know where to begin.
To help you keep track of intentions, there’s also a highly-rated WOOP app for Apple and Android devices, and you’d better believe it was the first thing I downloaded when the course was done. Rewirement, here I come!
8. Knowing really isn’t half the battle.
Early in the course, Santos introduces the “G.I. Joe fallacy.” That is not, as you might expect, the notion that being tough and powering through stuff like G.I. Joe thinking you’re immune to negative emotions is a fallacy, although that’s true too. It is taken from the PSA at the end of the 1980s cartoons, where the hero would tell us that “knowing is half the battle.”
Knowing how to make yourself happier, or what is making you unhappy, isn’t half the battle. It’s barely even the end of the beginning.
It isn’t, especially not when it comes to happiness. Knowing how to make yourself happier, or what is making you unhappy, isn’t half the battle. It’s barely even the end of the beginning. Putting it into action takes work, even more work than you can possibly do in the full-on 10-week version of this course. It is, in fact, a lifelong commitment. “Happiness is like a leaky tire,” says Nicholas Epley in his interview. “You’ve just got to keep reinflating it.”
Santos tells us repeatedly that knowing all this stuff doesn’t necessarily make her any happier. In the very last video of week 10, she has a chat with a couple of students who have just done their four-week rewirement assignment. Or rather, they both got started on their rewirements and failed to turn them into habits. Santos, who was supposed to be doing the work along with them, admits that she too failed to get up early for yoga and meditation.
You might well be frustrated at this last video, especially if you just spent four weeks rewiring yourself in good faith. It contradicts another lesson Santos keeps teaching us: That your social environment is responsible for cues that can predict your success or failure. Sure, as WOOP teaches us, it’s important to visualize obstacles. But why not show us success stories as well, so we can inhale some of those positive vibes?
“In our next video, we’ll talk a little bit more about the ways we can overcome some of the problems that all three of us faced as we tried to put these strategies into place,” Santos says at the end. But there is no next video! Either this is a clever commentary on the constant struggle of achieving happiness, or a sign that the whole “Science of Well-Being” course is a work in progress. Hopefully Santos’ 3 million COVID-era students are as keen to come back for more as I am.